Jessye Norman. Photo © Carol Friedman
People’s Choice: International Artist of the Year
“A sense of community and social justice would see her regularly ‘putting back’ throughout a life that saw education and a commitment to the less advantaged go hand in hand with fame and glamour.”
Direct, spontaneous, outspoken and honest, Jessye Mae Norman was all of those things and more. A consummate artist, she was born with a remarkable communicative gift and the determination to make her way in a profession in which up until then few African American singers had earned their due. Dominating world stages for decades from the 1970s, she was the grand diva par excellence. A towering talent that commanded and demanded the respect of fellow artists, she could send shivers of anticipation through an audience while putting the wind up any management who failed to create the right environment in which she could weave her magic. Her premature death this year at the age of 74 was a great loss to art and to the world in general.
Born in Augusta, Georgia in 1945 to musical parents, young Jessye grew up singing in her local Baptist choir. A lifelong Democrat, that sense of community and social justice would see her regularly ‘putting back’ throughout a life that saw education and a commitment to the less advantaged go hand in hand with fame and glamour.
Growing up in a golden age for singing, Norman’s important voices included Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price and Robert Merrill. Jon Vickers was a special inspiration and later a respected colleague. I have vivid memories as a young graduate of hearing her sing Das Lied von der Erde with Vickers at a BBC Prom in 1985. It was the first time I’d experienced an effect I have since come to regard as a benchmark for that handful of special performances, where a singer’s truthfulness and intensity makes the outside world close in like a collapsing telescope until it’s just them and me.
I was subsequently fortunate to hear her live on many occasions and I think it’s fair to say that Jessye Norman changed my life. This People’s Choice award suggests I wasn’t the only one. Clive Paget
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